2018: A Year in Asian-American Media

By Annie Wang and Tiffany Chan

Edited by Morgan Moore

With awards season wrapping up, it is safe to say that 2018 was  a tremendous year for the Asian American experience in film and television. Last year we saw  more Asian American (AA) actors and entertainers taking center stage and more stories written specifically about the immigrant experience.

Without further ado, we present to you 2018: A Year of Asian American Media.

Pixar’s Bao

An animated short film about an empty-nester mom and her dumpling that comes to life
Image property of Pixar Animation Studios

TC: Possibly because we interviewed the creators, this was one of my personally most highly anticipated releases of 2018. It also recently won an Oscar for Best Animated Short! In the initial days after its release, I saw a lot of feedback from viewers who did not understand the story arc or ultimately the point. Many thought it was a waste of time when they really just wanted to see Incredibles 2. However, many AA friends of mine, especially those in interracial relationships, told me how deeply this resonated with them. I think the film is relatable to anyone who is the child of immigrants, not just specifically Asian immigrants. Our parents sacrificed so much for us to be here, took so much care in raising us to fit into American society but things don’t always play out the way they expect them to. I’ll admit it—I cried in the theatre.

AW: I projected way too much of my own family into this short! It’s hard for me to articulate exactly why Bao moved me so much and I’ll probably turn into another blubbering mess if I try (if you know, you know, you know?) But speaking of immigrant parents, did you see Sandra Oh thanking her parents in Korean when she won her well-deserved Golden Globe for Killing Eve? Instant bawling.


Crazy Rich Asians

An American professor travels to Singapore to join her boyfriend for a wedding. And to meet the family. And his family is rich—crazy rich.
Image property of Warner Bros. Pictures

TC: We’ve spoken about this before, but I remain really grateful that this film was released and the sequel is already in the works. I think it was really important that this film showed a really diverse cast able to strike different emotional notes.


Searching

A high school student goes missing one night. This is the story of their family and her father’s quest to find her.
Image property of Sony Pictures

TC: I actually was familiar with the actress who plays the mom from social media! So it was a little surreal to see her on-screen but clearly, Hollywood does not need to look far to find Asian American talent. The focus of the film was on the relationship between parent and child. Yes, they happen to be Asian American, but that identity felt less important than exploring the relationship between David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (played by Michelle La). I think a lot of first-and second-generation AA can relate to the questions posed by the film. How much do our parents really know us? I thought it was innovative that the entire film played out on the various screens and programs we use (like video chatting, our emails, security cams etc). This film truly kept me on the edge of my seat.

AW: I did not actually see this film since I think I was traveling while it was in theaters and I’m super faint-of-heart, but I know that John Cho has been wanting to do this project for a long time and it looks like the reviews have been great. I’ll try to get my hands on it this year!


To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

A high school student wrote letters to cope with overwhelming crushes. The letters are mysteriously sent to said crushes. One of them suggests that they should pretend to be dating.
Image property of Netflix

TC: I LOVED this movie. It is so great to see a younger AA protagonist. When I was in high school, I am pretty sure the only Asian actress my age was Yin Chang as Nelly Yuki in Gossip Girl (and she’s technically the villain). I think the directors of this film take an overall pretty light-handed approach to race and culture. Yes, Lara Jean drinks yakult, but there are so many other aspects to the story and to her that are more important. This is the film I wish I had when I was Lara Jean’s age.

AW: Also one of my faves for the year! I read a few years ago that young adult fiction is one of the few genres in which female authors are the majority, so it makes sense that film adaptations can also more easily navigate certain identity issues (to be honest, I didn’t start interrogating my own racial/cultural identity with any seriousness until college, so maybe Lara Jean will go to Wellesley and we’ll get to see that then, hey). Also, from an aesthetic standpoint alone, the set/costume designers deserve a special commendation because the mise-en-scene was dessert for my eyeballs.


Hasan Minhaj, Patriot Act

Netflix show in which Daily show correspondent tackles topics from censorship in Saudi Arabia and China to the streetwear brand Supreme. One part investigative journalism, one part stand up comedy.
Image property of Netflix

AW: I’ve been a huge fan of Hasan’s since Homecoming King, and Patriot Act did not disappoint! I thought his coverage of the Affirmative Action case was particularly excellent. One of the things I respect most about him is that he puts all complicit people on blast, including (and sometimes specifically) other Asians! For those of us who take care to call out, it’s also important to be reminded that we’re complicit in poor behavior and mindsets as well. AND his crossover bit with Tan (from Queer Eye) that aired in advance of the series premiere was super cute. It was heartwarming to see them find solidarity in their brownness.

TC: Hasan has recently taken the heat for his criticism of the Saudi Arabian and Chinese governments and I think that his brand of incredibly well-researched political commentary is really refreshing. He’s not afraid to take on the tough topics but I never feel hopeless watching him. Political commentary has never been more popular but he still manages to bring both levity and personality to the table. He takes on serious topics but you never forget that it is a comedy show. He is relatable and bold, which is exactly the energy I want for 2019.


Ali Wong, Hard Knock Wife

Comedy special from working-mom and one of the writers of “Fresh Off the Boat”, tackling issues of pregnancy, parenthood, and relationships.
Image property of Netflix

AW: I saw this set live in Chicago the day I submitted my deposit for my grad program, and I will never forget the incredible silver jumpsuit she wore that night. Ali Wong holds a really special place in my heart, because watching Baby Cobra was really the first time I felt seen and understood in stand-up, but I really wish she would take the jokes about non-Asian people of color out of her repertoire. For someone who is clearly super sharp and insightful about so many things related to how women of color are perceived sexually/romantically and how that intersects with motherhood, there are always one or two bits that bomb for me in a big way.

TC: Agreed, Ali Wong’s comedy can be hit or miss for me, though I do really enjoy how her comedy has matured since her last special. From a visibility perspective, I love seeing an Asian American female comic who is also a working mom. She is kind of a unicorn in the stand-up world in that respect! I’ve enjoyed stand-up comedy for several years now, and a lot of the narratives from female comics essentially came down to trying to survive in a boys’ club. Motherhood and being in a committed relationship are somewhat uncharted territories. Can not wait for her next special.


Kim’s Convenience

A year of Asian American media in review
A sitcom about a Korean immigrant family who own a convenience store in Toronto.
Image property of Netflix

AW: Okay, so technically this is Asian-Canadian, but Kim’s Convenience is my pick for best contemporary narrative about the Asian diasporic experience in the West. I could write an entire essay about why I think this show’s storytelling is so exceptional (hint: it’s adapted from a play about a specific community to which the playwright belongs), but I think that it’s an important series for us to watch as we begin to move the center of discourse around Asian representation from “when are we represented” to “how we are represented.”

2019: What can we look forward to? Will this momentum last?

TC: In her monologue at the Golden Globes, Sandra Oh acknowledged the fact that she doesn’t know if this will last. Of hosting she said,

I wanted to be here and look out onto this audience and witness this moment of change. I’m not fooling myself. Next year could be different and probably will be. But right now, this moment is real.”

So, I am cautiously optimistic about this. I am still trying to parse out what happened after The Joy Luck Club was released in 1993. At the time, I’m sure many people thought that it was a watershed moment in AA representation, but that didn’t really come to fruition. Is now finally the moment the tides change?

Perhaps this can be linked to the increase in activism as well as the advent of social media and reach/visibility of “regular” people. People are seeking out authentic, inclusive, and diverse media. It’s Hollywood’s turn to try and meet that demand.

AW: I think the difference between when The Joy Luck Club aired and today is that it’s Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Killing Eve and Fresh Off the Boat, and a dozen other stories that are all being produced and consumed all around the same year and gaining critical/commercial success. I think we also need to remember that for every piece of positive representation we’ve seen, there are probably multiple roles that are being whitewashed. But I don’t see that as a bad thing, just as a reminder that we can’t take this step outwards for granted.

TC: Is it sad that I’m so excited for Asian characters to just be treated as…normal? I almost feel like I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and the racist stereotypes to come out again. What I find refreshing is that while these films and shows definitely delve into the Asian American identity to one extent or the other, it’s not the only thing that is presented about the characters.  

AW: I think that’s totally normal, though I have to admit that letting down my guard is still hard. After all, getting under a lifetime’s worth of conditioning can’t happen overnight, right? One series I’m looking forward to this year is Margaret Cho’s “Mercy Mistress”, which I understand just premiered on Youtube. Beyond being one of the more resilient actors and comedians in our community, it does fill me with a certain sense of confidence to see Asian Americans self-producing work on their own terms, instead of only waiting for major production company approval —though I do think that both need to happen for us to continue to gain meaningful traction.


There were so many talented actors and actresses that we didn’t even get to mention but we are so glad that they have found their spotlight! Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.

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